From Afghanistan to Colombia, the War on Terror Has Failed

Latin American battlefields served as laboratories for developing tactics the U.S. later exported to West Asia

From Afghanistan to Colombia, the War on Terror Has Failed
U.S. national security officials Elliott Abrams (left) and John Negroponte (right) served in Republican administrations from Reagan to Trump with assignments that straddled Latin America and the Middle East. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

Lisette is frustrated with her job as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, where she has spent years trying to alert an apathetic American public to their country’s failing war effort. “I remember Raul telling me to find another war, one we’re winning. So I type one sentence, ‘Are there any wars right now where we’re not losing?’” she narrates. “And within 15 minutes he responds with one word. ‘Colombia.’”

So begins the second act of Phil Klay’s 2020 novel “Missionaries.” The book’s characters are the soldiers, mercenaries, journalists and humanitarian do-gooders on the front lines of U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns around the world. Lisette follows some of her special forces contacts from the Middle East to Latin America, where they are helping manage Colombia’s campaign to bring communist rebels to heel.

“Missionaries” is more than a work of fiction. It is a human-scale portrayal of the way U.S. counterinsurgency tactics have moved back and forth across the globe. Latin American battlefields — particularly Colombia — were indeed a laboratory for developing tactics later exported to Muslim countries. Sometimes, the same military officers fought in both parts of the world, swapping tactics; other times, U.S. administrations copied and pasted strategies wholesale. In some instances, the real-life results were more convoluted and brutal than anything Klay depicted in his novel.

In the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration celebrated the success of a counterinsurgency operation known as “Plan Colombia” by inaugurating “Plan Afghanistan.” After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the administration tried to export the “Salvador Option,” based on El Salvador’s civil war (1979-1992), to the Middle East. U.S. veterans of the Latin American wars flew to the Middle East to help advise the new U.S.-backed governments.

“The operations I’ve been most focused on in South America has [sic] been the insurgency in Colombia,” said Adm. James Stavridis in a 2014 interview. “My experience there will translate well to my role as the NATO commander in Afghanistan, which is, let’s face it, an insurgency, drug-fueled, obviously 100 percent different in many ways. But, my experiences in understanding and learning counterinsurgency I think are up to the task,” he said.

On the surface, the U.S.-backed war effort in Colombia was successful. U.S. aid has helped set up a Colombian government that can stand on its own two feet. And it seemed to end a conflict that has been burning through the countryside since the 1950s. The main communist rebel group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in Spanish — even agreed to lay down its arms as part of a peace process beginning in the early 2010s.

Yet an investigation released this summer by Colombia’s official Truth Commission calls into question the meaning of success. Decades of conflict have left 450,000 people dead. Splinter factions and drug gangs continue to battle in the countryside. As Klay puts it in “Missionaries,” “guerrillas turn to paramilitaries turn to drug gangs turn to politicians.”

The same U.S. aid that allowed Colombia to overcome its rebellion also helped shatter Colombian society. While “the United States has accompanied and assisted Colombia in the quest for peace,” its assistance has also led to “decades of murders, forced disappearances, and massacres” against political dissidents, and a “hardening of the conflict in which the civilian population has been the principal victim,” the Truth Commission report states.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century, Colombian governments have aligned themselves with U.S. security doctrines,” the Truth Commission noted. “During the Cold War, the State acted in alignment with those interests in a disciplined manner.”

Of course, the guerillas made their own contribution to civilian misery through kidnappings, assassinations and mass terrorism. “Life, liberty, and human dignity were subordinate to the war” in the eyes of rebel leaders, the Truth Commission argues. Nor does the U.S. deserve all the blame for militarizing the conflict; Colombian elites did not act “solely out of subordination” to Washington but also from a mentality that was “directed towards war” as a substitute for a “democratic opening or social reform.”

Colombians themselves helped to export the tactics of their civil war. During the 1980s, the Colombian intelligence services reportedly sent “paracos” (far-right paramilitaries) to Israel for training. More recently, veterans-for-hire have become one of Colombia’s most infamous industries. Colombian mercenaries fill the ranks of the United Arab Emirates’ army and were implicated in the 2021 assassination of Haitian president Moise Jovenal.

Flooding repressive regimes with weapons, helping escalate local social conflicts, unleashing remote killing machines, handing power to unaccountable militias: There is a reason wars in the Middle East and Latin America seem to rhyme — and foreign governments have been so keen to import Colombian fighters.

U.S. officials used Cold War-era conflicts in the Caribbean basin as a laboratory for counterinsurgency. By the early 2000s, the U.S. military had developed a sophisticated combination of surveillance, airpower, covert operations and economic aid to control unruly frontier zones. When Islamist terror became the threat of the day, Washington deployed the Colombian method across the Muslim world.

But guns and cash alone cannot create a social order. Having destroyed its organized ideological competitors — communism and Islamism — the U.S. often left power vacuums in their wake. Violence continued in a more disorganized, chaotic fashion. U.S. forces charged in time and again to quell it. Americans were left with a “not-quite-empire which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why,” as Lisette, the fictional war correspondent in “Missionaries,” puts it.

Take out a hostile regime or smash a popular opposition party and a scattered insurgency fills the vacuum. Beat the insurgents into submission and they fragment into criminal gangs or extremist cults. Kill the gang leaders and more brutal ones take their place. Technically efficient but detached from a long-term political strategy, U.S. counterinsurgency warfare became a process of wiping out all but the most ruthless and paranoid actors.

“Sure, it wasn’t the exhausted, drug-addled insanity of Vietnam,” Lisette says in “Missionaries”:

Not pot and heroin and LSD insanity, but the insanity of a generation raised on iPhones and Adderall. A glittering, mechanical insanity that executes each task with machinelike precision, eyes on the mission amid the accumulating human waste.

The history goes back to the “banana republics” bordering the Caribbean Sea. Inequality and the influence of American fruit companies led to increasing discontent among the peasantry.

In 1948, the assassination of a Colombian president kicked off a series of peasant rebellions in Colombia known as “La Violencia,” or “The Violence.” By the mid-1960s, the violence coalesced into a full-blown, communist-led insurgency.

Meanwhile, unrest was bubbling up in Guatemala, another so-called banana republic. A military dictatorship had taken power in a 1954 coup (supported by the U.S.) and rebellions were popping up across the countryside. In 1979, the entire region exploded into civil war, as leftist revolutionaries took power in Nicaragua and attempted to topple the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala.

U.S. advisers used the Colombian conflict to test new methods of proxy warfare. Gen. William Yarborough and Col. Edward Lansdale cut their teeth in the early 1960s setting up Colombian “hunter-killer squads” to root out “known communist proponents” from the countryside, as the historian Greg Grandin notes in his book “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Making of an Imperial Republic.” They later became key architects of the U.S. strategy in Vietnam.

Lansdale applied an even more extreme version of his “hunter-killer squad” method two decades later in El Salvador. Under the direct supervision of U.S. military officers, Salvadoran forces crushed a peasant rebellion by wiping out villages, machine-gunning refugee convoys and torturing prisoners to death. In neighboring Guatemala, the U.S.-funded military carried out a genocide against the Ixil Mayans, an Indigenous people suspected of leftist sympathies.

Most of the Central American civil wars wound down with the end of the Cold War, but fighting raged on in Colombia. The Colombian countryside fell under the control of a kaleidoscope of FARC units, leftist splinter groups, pro-government militias, narco-traffickers and Venezuelan proxies.

Perhaps no one embodies the chaos of the civil war more than Pablo Escobar, the infamous crime lord and inspiration for the hit Netflix series “Narcos.” Escobar rode to power on a wave of anti-communism, allying with paracos as he took control of Colombia’s cocaine trade in the 1970s and ’80s. But his flamboyant lawbreaking and wanton brutality put a target on his back, especially as he allegedly played both sides by flirting with leftist guerrillas. Former paraco allies turned against the Escobar crime syndicate, opening the door for a joint U.S.-Colombian task force to gun down Escobar in 1993.

After the Cold War ended, Washington rolled out a high-tech campaign called Plan Colombia, meant to finish off the FARC and drug cartels alike. It came with the doctrine of “narco-terrorism,” the notion that illegal drug profits were the root cause of insurgency. Massive infusions of military and development aid, alongside covert U.S. operations, helped the Colombian government shore up its authority. U.S. prosecutors used anti-drug and counterterrorism laws to pursue FARC members as well as pro-government paracos who committed egregious abuses.

The Bush administration then “consciously attempted to replicate” Plan Colombia in the Afghan war, even shuttling officials between the two countries, writes Grandin in “Empire’s Workshop.” It goes without saying that “Plan Afghanistan” was much less successful.

Meanwhile, the war in El Salvador and the surrounding countries ended up becoming a crucible for the U.S. officials who ran the Iraq War.

The Reagan administration official Elliott Abrams was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, a scheme to fund anti-communist militants in Nicaragua by secretly selling weapons to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He bounced back from the scandal to oversee Middle Eastern affairs in the Bush administration. John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, was appointed the first post-2003 ambassador to Iraq. Alberto Miguel Fernandez, who started his diplomatic career as a U.S. Embassy press attache in Nicaragua in 1986, became the U.S. government’s spokesperson on Arabic-language media during the Iraq War.

As the situation in Iraq deteriorated, some U.S. policy circles began talking about bringing the “Salvador option” to the Arab world. Col. James Steele, an U.S. military adviser who helped run Lansdale’s hunter-killer squads in El Salvador, began training Shiite paramilitaries to hunt Sunni insurgents. The militias that chant anti-American slogans in the streets of Baghdad have a lineage stretching back to the early U.S. military missions in Bogotá.

“I first heard about Colonel James Steele going to Iraq and I said they’re going to implement what is known as the Salvadoran Option in Iraq and that’s exactly what happened,” said Celerino Castillo, a drug enforcement agent who had served with Steele in El Salvador, in an interview with the media. “And I was devastated because I knew the atrocities that were going to occur in Iraq which we knew had occurred in El Salvador.”

While U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq and later Afghanistan, they stayed in Colombia. In 2016, they appeared to succeed, as the FARC signed a final peace agreement with the government. (The Truth Commission report credits both the Obama administration and the communist government of Cuba, which hosted many crucial negotiations, for the diplomatic breakthrough.) The country has made major strides toward reconciliation — even electing a former guerrilla president — although splinter factions and rival militants continue to battle in the countryside.

As part of the peace process, Colombia also set up its Truth Commission to document the horrors of the war. The body made clear that these military experiments came at a horrific human price.

Yarborough’s tactics helped normalize the growth of militias and turned large parts of the population into “internal enemies,” just as the U.S. occupation of Iraq later did. Plan Colombia allowed “criminal networks and violent coalitions of a more local character” to flourish, the report noted. The belief in a link between coca farming and terrorism caused authorities to brutalize peasants, a predecessor to the failed campaigns against Afghan poppy growers.

With the help of American researchers, the commission also dug up classified documents showing that U.S. officials knew their military assistance was being used to kill civilians.

What the Truth Commission describes in bureaucratic language, Klay demonstrates through fictional vignettes in “Missionaries.” In the novel, anti-narcotics police descend from the sky to gun down peasants at random. Communist guerrillas slaughter villagers who fail to pay sufficient war-taxes. Jefferson, an anti-communist militant who believes himself to be a cross between a Steven Seagal character and a holy crusader, orders his paracos to torture a captive to death with a chainsaw. Klay describes the sounds and smells in detail.

In the climax of the novel, Colombian special forces assassinate a local narco kingpin as part of an operation meant to impress U.S. bureaucrats. The raid upsets the delicate balance between Jefferson, the coca growers he taxes and other power brokers in his town. (One could say that Jefferson led a “violent coalition of a more local character,” in the parlance of the Truth Commission.) A visiting delegation of human rights researchers adds to the chaos, largely because the locals mistake the journalist Lisette for a CIA agent. Conflict breaks out.

Neither local leaders nor the military leadership in Bogotá grasp the situation in its entirety in “Missionaries.” Colombian and American officers in the capital view figures like Jefferson as “penny-ante drug dealers” running around the “bumblefuck backwoods” with delusions of grandeur. But those officers themselves are playing with forces they barely understand. Their intelligence apparatus is a funhouse mirror. Events on the ground are distorted by self-interested informants, mediated through digital noise and willfully misinterpreted for political reasons.

In the end, only the locals pay a price for ignorance in “Missionaries.” Armed with American-made hardware and U.S. surveillance data, the Colombian military tries to solve the crisis in Jefferson’s town with a display of overwhelming firepower. The people they kill are not the ones who caused the issue, but it barely matters. The dead are buried, the “penny-ante drug dealers” walk home with their tails between their legs and the bureaucrats write a report that has little relationship to reality.

Klay’s characters justify their work with a cynical lesser-evil-ism. It is what the historian Daniel Bessner calls “imperialist realism,” a worldview “that can’t quite justify American actions abroad, but also can’t imagine a world outside of a militarily-dominant U.S. empire.” Yes, Washington backs brutal regimes and hurts innocent civilians. But without the U.S. military, who would kill terrorists? Without those regimes, who would round up the bad guys?

“‏Sometimes I think it is like a man with a machete hacking a path through the jungle,” Klay’s fictional Colombian lieutenant colonel Juan Pablo muses. “Everybody who follows behind us, it’s their job to think about justice, about whether the state is cruel and callous, or good and benevolent.”

Speaking in his own voice, Klay has said that he wants Americans to think more deeply about the use of military force, political alternatives to war, and the “second- and third-order consequences to the use of violence that are very hard to predict.” Perhaps the winds are changing in that direction. U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden both vowed to stop so-called “forever wars.” Colombia’s steps toward peace show that such wars can actually end in national reconciliation, with locals in charge of the process.

But it is hard to see “forever wars” truly ending in the world that Plan Colombia and the Salvador Option have made; the world “Missionaries” portrays. The war machine has learned to be more sustainable over time, to eliminate all alternatives to itself, to transform the monsters it creates into a justification for its own existence, to hide the costs of violence from the public and even itself.

The novel ends with Juan Pablo taking up a new job in the UAE military. A cynical atheist conservative, he has watched with frustration as his daughter adopts a left-wing Catholic worldview. Now he is observing a Yemeni funeral through the camera of a drone, scoffing at the “primitive tribesmen” who dare threaten global commerce and their “debased culture of rituals and poverty and sacred texts that half of them are too illiterate to read.”

Houthi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders are spotted at the funeral, which makes it fair game for destruction. From the sky, Arab pilots in U.S. jets drop bombs on the “military aged males” in mourning. On the ground, Latin American mercenaries move to “round up the funeralgoers and send them to secret prisons where they would be tortured.” In the operations center, foreign contractors observe the battle, ignorant of the victims’ individual identities but quite interested in the weapons’ physical effects.

“It took all of the massively complex, interconnected modern world to bring these men their deaths,” Juan Pablo observes. “It was a shame they were incapable of appreciating it.”

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